Off-duty employees gone wild: Is your crisis plan comprehensive?

It’s guilt by association. What staffers do during their own time can damage your organization’s reputation, especially with social media accelerating public outrage. Are you prepared?

Employees gone wild: Crisis communications planning

When communicators plan for an unforeseen PR disaster, they list scenarios that could damage their organization’s reputation.

Often, these plans cover how the brand would respond if a senior executive was accused of sexual harassment or got into a car accident while drunk.

However, many companies still leave themselves vulnerable to reputational risk by failing to consider a massive blind spot: their rank-and-file employees’ bad behavior outside work hours.

Before Facebook and Twitter enabled people to reach almost any brand, companies could at least claim that an employee’s inappropriate or offensive behavior on their own time was exactly that: their own, outside the company’s control.

Now, with the public just a few keystrokes away from expressing outrage publicly and in real time, the game has changed. Organizations have to be prepared to act quickly and decisively if a rogue worker’s actions threaten the brand.

Hydro One fired an employee in 2015 after he shouted an obscenity at a TV reporter during a live report at a Toronto FC soccer match. The incident garnered immediate and widespread outrage on social media, along with support for the TV reporter, which included a comment about sexual harassment from then-Premier Kathleen Wynne. (Hydro One eventually rehired the employee, after an arbitrator found he had made “extensive efforts” to make amends.)

A year later, there was the famous Blue Jays game beer toss, which cost a Postmedia employee his job, and left him facing criminal charges. That incident, too, caused a wave of online condemnation.

Could a company simply issue a condemning statement in such an instance? Absolutely, but with a caveat: Management and HR teams must also be ready to go further.

That means crisis plans must include protocols to fire an employee if the case is egregious enough, pay severance as appropriate and then be prepared to argue its case in court if the employee sues the company.

In May, Roseanne Barr, the star of a successful reboot of her original “Roseannesitcom, posted a racist tweet. Just hours after the post and resulting online anger, ABC strongly condemned Barr’s comments and canceled the popular and lucrative show.

At the same time, responding quickly—or too strongly—can be fraught with legal risk. For example, what if a brand condemns or fires an employee for a criminal offense before that person is proven guilty?

Scotiabank is facing such a case, after an employee in Toronto was charged with child luring, sexual assault and other offenses. These are gravely serious allegations, the bank’s name has appeared in many headlines, and its brand is damaged with every new article. However, these are charges that haven’t yet been tested in court. The bank took a balanced and appropriate course of action by refusing to comment given the ongoing investigation, and by not answering questions about the worker’s employment status.

Companies have nowhere to hide when it comes to the reputational damage an off-duty employee can cause. PR and management teams should address this reality head on, rather than trying to fix things as they arise. By then, it could already be too late.

A version of this post first appeared on the Provident Communications blog.

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